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City Fire Q&A On Budgets, Changes

POSTED July 20, 2010 3:19 p.m.
With the new fiscal year in full swing, The Oakdale Leader thought it would be prudent to sit down with Oakdale City Fire Chief Michael Botto and find out how the city fire department is weathering the budget crisis and how the changes might affect the community. (Answers may have been edited for content.) What structural changes within the department will be made to accommodate the FY Budget 2010-11? BOTTO: We have reduced our administration staffing from two full-time chief officers and one half-time executive secretary to two part-time chief officers and one full-time executive secretary. Division Chief/Fire Marshal Rick Fields and I both retired in the 2009/10 fiscal budget year. This fiscal year, my position of fire chief and the division chief/fire marshal’s position are only funded as half-time positions hourly without benefits. This is a significant savings to our department’s budget. We will be reassigning a fire captain to a 40-hour work week supporting administrative needs. The fire captain working the administrative position will have the primary responsibility of supporting emergency fire and rescue needs followed by city code enforcement duties. Are you concerned going into the fiscal year that the mid-year budget will present challenges in keeping firefighters?BOTTO: We have been, and continue to be, concerned. We have spent a great deal of time with budgeting and planning for moves and adjustments that have already been made. We have exhausted our options. The City continues to experience declining sales and property tax revenue and our expenses continue to increase. The City has reduced its general fund spending from $11.3 million three years ago to $8.1 million this year. The fire department is the second largest general fund expense and reductions have taken place to live with our fiscal limitations. Further reduction to our department’s budget will most likely result in additional reduction(s) in staffing (layoff) and fire station brown-outs. Are there any positive changes coming as a result of the forced restructuring? BOTTO: We have also created a partnership with the Stanislaus County Fire Wardens Office to assist us in meeting our fire prevention mission. This agreement will meet our state mandated inspections requirements (hospital, care centers, licensed care facilities, apartments), Fire Protection Systems plan review and field inspections, and review of all new construction projects. The community will realize the same service but delivered by a member of the Fire Wardens Office. A significant change due to the fiscal challenges we have been adjusting to is the successful partnership of the “joint staffed engine company” with the Oakdale Fire District. This was initiated in March 2010. This partnership has allowed us to maintain a three-member staffed engine company at City fire station No.1. This agreement reduced our overtime expense from the inception in March through June honoring our contractual staffing agreement. The Oakdale Fire Department and the Oakdale Fire District are codependents. We do not have the independent resources to meet our individual needs. An additional component of the partnership agreement with the District and a new expanded partnership with Stanislaus Consolidated Fire District is for the sharing of the chief officers. These agreements ensure that we have 24/7 fire chief officer coverage for incident response support needs. We were unable to maintain this level of coverage for our own agency. We are also currently working with the Escalon Fire District on establishing an automatic aid agreement sharing resources between our agencies.Another success was the City of Oakdale and the Oakdale Irrigation District partnership. Without this support we would not have been able to sustain our specialized rescue programs of water rescue, technical rescue (confined space, trench collapse, and low-high angle) and our hazardous materials release response. What are some programs that have been discontinued due to budget constraints?BOTTO: We assumed the City’s code enforcement responsibilities two years ago. This additional workload was assigned to the division chief/fire marshal. This provided our department additional general fund revenue that allowed us to meet our established goals. Community code enforcement is now reactive based only on complaints. We cannot provide a proactive service. We cannot deliver the same level of services as we once did. The delivery of our public education programs has been sustained at a reduced and minimum level; our ability to be aggressive in meeting the changes in service demands to the community has been significantly reduced do to our inability to conduct research and development by staff.  How will the community be most affected by the current budget struggles? BOTTO: Collectively, the Oakdale Fire Department and the Oakdale Fire District have lost nine firefighters, closed two fire stations and reduced daily minimum staffing from 12 firefighters to seven. The reduction affects the type of action we can take on an incident and our ability to respond to multiple incidents. Response times will increase and at times, we may be only able to respond to the most severe life threatening medical emergencies.Currently, our funding does not allow for engine and vehicle replacement. In order to just maintain what we have requires an annual commitment of $130,000. We are unable to fund any of this need. Our aerial truck is a 1979 vintage and is in need of replacement. A new one would cost close to $900,000. This is completely out of our reach and not currently justified. We could replace it with a used one at approximately $200,000 to $300,000 but that also is out of our reach. Our equipment replacement account funding items such as fire hose, personnel protective safety clothing, self-contained breathing apparatus, and communications needs is only partially funded.  Our budgets have been reduced, our staffing has been reduced, but our calls for service continue to increase. We will continue to explore all revenue generating options including grant funding, partnership opportunities with other agencies, and constant evaluation and revisions to our services provided and programs delivered.In November of 2009, the City accepted a Fire Master Plan study, which identified our current level of service and provided recommendations for exploring options which we are now currently pursuing. The Fire Master Plan Study is available and our adopted budget will be posted on our web site.
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